Although beauty is subjective, sometimes our culture seems to decide, collectively, what we “should” consider beautiful. Is it straight teeth? The right outfit? A certain weight? Time period and geography change the ideal, but The Beautiful Anthology considers a more personal definition, beyond the “shoulds” of the world. Twenty-seven writers contribute to this collection with essays, stories, and poems all aiming at expanding what it means to be beautiful.
Each entry has an accompanying image. Most are photographs, but a few drawings are also present. The images, even if pulled from old films that stand apart, are interesting in their own way, even without the words. I’m particularly fond of the more contemporary fine art photos, with the subjects’ expressions appearing to contain entire universes unto themselves. Laying out the book in this way is a nice touch, as when we first think of beauty, we often think of it in a visual way.
[T]he French term belle-laide keeps coming to mind. Literally translated as “beautiful-ugly,” it is an adjective usually given to a woman or girl whose looks are beautiful to some, ugly to others. In short, it denotes a hard-to-pin-down, hard-to-describe woman.
Many people don’t understand this term because it seems self-negating, but I think it is a very interesting and appropriate idiom, encapsulating in its way all the dichotomies and debatable areas of life: how one person’s beauty, or what one finds beautiful, is not always appreciated by others.
–Elizabeth Collins, from the Foreword
Perhaps the greatest example of something under-appreciated is Steve Sparshott’s essay, “Fin,” about urinal dividers. “You probably wouldn’t notice as you’re suffocating in the stench,” he writes, “but they’re incredibly elegant, simple, sculptural things.” His essay is short (I mean, how long can one go on about urinal dividers? Well, probably longer than I think), but it’s also very funny, and it’s one of my favorites in the book.
There are contributions from more well-known authors like Gina Frangello, Greg Olear, and Jessica Anya Blau, but some of my other favorites came from writers I’d never encountered, to my memory. Nora Burkey’s “The Politics of Beauty” is excellent, an essay about working at an all-girls school in Cambodia. All these Western people swoop in with their money and act as though they should be the white saviors to an “illogical” country.
At the dormitory, a different American woman, this one younger and agreeable to everything [the school’s director] Paul said, asked if I’d be willing to show the girls how to wash their hands better. She said this is something they often neglected because they didn’t really know how. Their “backward” parents had never taught them. She also complained of them not wearing deodorant. They were teenagers, after all, and should have been concerned about the smell of their underarms.
I declined her offer. It was not the students’ duty to be beautiful like me, clean like me. Was it fair to ask them to be cleaner when they showered with a cold hose they shared with twenty-nine others and lived off ten dollars of spending money a month? Thirty teenage girls with no toilet paper or tampons, who would do anything for the chance to go to school, could keep their hands dirty if they wanted, I thought. Who was I to call this backward? Time doesn’t go that way.
These are people who more or less live outside, in a hot climate. There are different expectations and it is a different reality. And a bottle of Pantene Pro-V still costs $4.25 in a country where most people live on less than a dollar a day. Burkey is much more circumspect than I would be writing about these school employees – I’d be more like, “Fuck them for thinking it’s just a matter of deciding to be the Western-version of clean.”
Another essay I really loved was J.E. Fishman’s “Spinning.” It’s about tennis and the most perfect serve he ever hit, but it’s also about the tennis pro named Rob, who was teaching lessons while coming back from a shoulder injury. Tennis is about the only sport I watch on TV, and so perhaps that increased my enjoyment, but I think anyone will see the beauty in what happens here. I won’t pull quote it – you’ll just have to read it.
Other highlights include Ronlyn Domingue’s essay, “Milkweed and Metamorphosis,” Catherine Tufariello’s poem, “Meditation in Middle Age,” and the essay “Crazy Beautiful” by Melissa Febos. Most everything in the book is quite good. I wasn’t wild about Tyler Stoddard Smith’s “Truth and Booty,” as it seemed to be trying a little too hard to be clever, but nothing is outwardly bad in this anthology. It’s wonderful, thought-provoking, and worth passing along to anyone else who might be grappling with their own definition of “beautiful.”
(This review originally appeared on Glorified Love Letters.)